Wedged like a heaving slab of misery between the sun n’ sleaze of Paradise: Love and the clammy optimism of Paradise: Hope is Paradise: Faith, the middle film of Austrian director Ulrich Seidl’s trilogy exploring the mores of contemporary Austrian society through a predominantly female lens. A punishing account of the day-to-day existence of the middle-aged, devoutly Catholic Anna Maria (Maria Hofstätter), it is, quite frankly, an ordeal, though one leavened ever so occasionally with a flash of mordant humour.
Seidl lets us know what we’re in for from the film’s opening moments depicting Maria, kneeling in her boxy bedroom (just one of many restrictive spaces in the film’s closed-off, claustrophobic world), self-flagellating brutally in front of the looming, wall-mounted cross. Subsequent scenes reveal this strong-jawed, earnest and resolute woman to be interested solely in conveying the word of the Lord, whether or not the rest of the populace will bite. She’s the type of character that will be familiar to many of us, regardless of our religious persuasion; so dogged and myopic that she’s as likely to engender a grudging, bemused respect as irritation. This particular combination of reactions arises in one of the film’s more amusing scenes – a long, circuitous argument between Maria and an elderly couple she’s preaching to.
Just when we’re settling into a documentary-style evocation of Maria’s routine (which serves as a showcase for the poised control of both Hofstätter’s performance and Seidl’s cool formal style), the director drops a bombshell: the return of Maria’s ex-husband Nabil (Nabil Saleh), a wheelchair-bound Muslim (although a photograph reveals he was able-bodied at the time of their relationship). Nabil thrusts himself back into Maria’s life, and as she tries to fend him off, finds herself becoming increasingly tempted by, shall we say, life’s more earthly pleasures. Unfortunately for Nabil, Maria isn’t interested in sex with him, rather she intends to give herself fully to the Lord. Seidl’s none-so-subtle device for sparking off Maria’s sexual crisis is to have her wander unsuspectingly into a clearing where a full-scale orgy is taking place. The growing tension between the pair is captured with an unflinching intensity by Seidl, while their clash of faiths comes over fairly simplistic, with the obvious irony being that their adherence to their respective faiths is bringing them precisely nowhere nearer to happiness.
The painterly, pictorial clarity and consistency of Seidl’s style can't be faulted – and Hofstätter is fearless and convincing – but sadly, as a corollary of the director’s commitment to detached observation in lieu of taking a particular authorial stand, Paradise: Faith becomes somewhat repetitive and dulling: essentially film as a patience test, without much of a reason provided as to why we should be engaging. That said, Seidl can always be relied on to deliver a shock to the system, and proceedings are memorably enlivened by a bracing and brutal late sequence involving Maria’s attempts to convert a sozzled young Russian girl.
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